Parvez Sharma’s A Jihad for Love is a powerful, important documentary which investigates the complex relationship between homosexuality and the religion of Islam. Filmed in twelve countries and in nine languages, it includes in-depth interviews with gay men and lesbians, all of whom express their vital need to have both their religion and queer identity in their lives, regardless of the difficulties engendered by that troubled equation. Sharma defines the word “jihad” as “struggle” or “to strive in the path of God,” rather than merely the holy war most Westerners believe it to mean. “It will take a jihad and probably longer than my lifetime to reconcile homosexuality and Islam,” says one participant, ruefully.

All of the interviewees have paid heavy prices, as in the case of the Iranian refugee Amir, who waits with three friends in Turkey for asylum to be granted for them to go to Canada. In Iran, he was charged with “crimes” of sexual preference and conduct and received ten lashes as punishment. (Photos of his raw, bloody back attest to this horror.) Mazen was one of 52 Egyptian men arrested when government authorities raided a gay club, The Queen Boat, in 2001. He was imprisoned for two years and tortured during that time before gaining asylum in Paris, where he now resides. He watches a videotape of his trial with tears running down his face as he decries the process wherein he wasn’t even able to hear the judge’s sentencing. It took Sharma two years before he would allow his face to be filmed, testament to not only his bravery, but the very real fear in which he still lives.

Lesbians are represented by two couples. Maha and Maryam are Arab lovers who met online after surviving abusive marriages and who declare their love on camera before the prestigious Islamic center of learning in Cairo. However, inner conflict still rages within, as one of them confesses that, although forbidden lesbianism is punishable by a scolding in contrast to the harsher measures taken against male sex, “I want to be punished. Why do I suffer in silence and feel guilty?”

Ferda is a Sufi lesbian living in Istanbul, who takes her lover Kiymet to meet her 80-year-old mother in a heartwarming scene that has Mom wishing, as so many mothers of lesbians do, that her daughter were more “stylish.” The lovers make a pilgrimage to Konya, where the 13th-century Sufi mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi is buried near Shams al-din, rumored to have been the Mevlana’s male lover and inspiration for his greatest work. Such evidence of homosexuality is not unique in Islam, as a number of the participants have uncovered evidence, like Amir, who describes men being together in ancient Persia, something now outlawed in Iran.

Imam Muhsin Hendricks lives in South Africa, where his forebears were pillars of Cape Town’s Orthodox Muslim community. He courageously decided to come out on the radio, with his personal interpretation of the Quran (Koran) which, in his eyes, is not the homophobic text many perceive it to be. A historic event occurred when he was invited to address the Islamic Social Welfare Council, which had previously excommunicated him for being gay. There, Hendricks brings his thoughtful reasoning to the group and gratifyingly effects some real understanding in their number. We see him with his children from a previous early marriage, who obviously still adore their father and are even able to joke about him being stoned to death, a traditional Islamic sentencing for homosexuality. Such dark humor is rather inescapable in a culture in which Hendricks’ radio broadcasts are met with virulent callers who state that homosexuals bring down the name of Islam, hurt millions of Muslims and should be thrown off a cliff.